Climate change isn’t a future scenario — it’s an everyday reality. This year alone, devastating storms in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, deadly floods in Africa, Europe, and East Asia, unprecedented heatwaves in North America, and raging wildfires in Australia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe have affected millions. Against this backdrop, the artic ground is “literally collapsing,” with the continuous loss of sea ice, receding glaciers, and permafrost thawing at a dramatic rate. The first contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) makes it clear that every inhabited region across the globe has already been affected by human-induced climate change, with some countries and communities more vulnerable to climate impacts than others.
Why COP26 in Glasgow matters
Findings from the AR6 paint a bleak picture for the most vulnerable. Despite the collective progress made since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the world remains on a trajectory to a dangerously warmer climate with more frequent and brutal impacts. According to the latest synthesis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UNEP emissions gap report, current commitments, including net-zero pledges, would bring us to a 2.2°C increase in global temperatures by the end of the century. While this is an improvement from the 2.7-3.4°C increases projected back in 2015, the difference between the stretch goal, 1.5°C, and 2.2 °C is life or death for vulnerable countries, on account of higher sea level rise, greater biodiversity and crop loss, increased water scarcity, and more extreme weather events. Vulnerable countries are the least responsible for the climate crisis, and yet bear the brunt of its impacts.
Developed countries should have collectively played a decisive leadership role in this fight but failed to address the gap, both in terms of emissions reduction and the mobilization of the $100 billion per year goal from 2020, promised in Copenhagen. They still need to scale up finance to fulfill their pledge to provide the means of implementation and support to developing countries to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience. In addition, G20 countries, who account for 75% of global GHG emissions, play a pivotal role in mitigating the effects of climate change, despite their different level of development. More ambitious action on their part could limit end-of-the-century warming to 1.7°C. In addition, the 1.5 degree °C goal is still within reach, and COP26 is at that critical juncture of climate ambition and climate disaster.
What a just and ambitious COP outcome looks like
Significant progress at COP26 doesn’t just mean closing the temperature gap and keeping 1.5°C alive. It also means maintaining resilience towards a 1.5°C world by better adapting and tackling climate-induced losses and damages more effectively, while holding countries and key stakeholders accountable for their actions, and doing so with solidarity.
We need to see all countries committing to an acceleration path for deeper and faster emissions cuts, especially from the world’s biggest emitters. Over the past year, these countries have submitted inadequate near-term plans by either backsliding from their initial commitments or failing to show any sort of progression. They should urgently adjust their pledges and submit climate plans aligned to a 1.5°C goal. COP26 should also kick-start the first global stocktake, a collective review of climate action that provides an assessment of where and why we are off-track, where we need to be, and how to get there. This process should be informed by the latest IPCC reports and inform policy design and implementation, as well as the submission of the next round of NDCs.
COP26 will not be deemed a success if progress on adaptation is not delivered. Specifically, the Glasgow outcome must ensure that countries meet the long-term goal on adaptation, also enshrined in the Paris Agreement alongside the temperature goal. In order to do so, progress must be made on developing guidance to collectively track and measure adaptation action. The accurate assessment of adaptation efforts can provide clarity on what further action and finance are needed to address the gaps. However, adaptation cannot see credible progress without more secure, predictable, concessional, and grant-based finance that is specifically earmarked for it. Developed countries also have a responsibility to increase the share of adaptation finance in their climate finance pledges.
However, adaptation can only take vulnerable developing countries so far. At 1.5°C, the most vulnerable are still projected to experience extremely severe and unavoidable impacts — such as loss of life and livelihood, forced migration, significant loss of crop yield, and loss of cultural heritage, among others — that are simply beyond adaptation. COP26 must signal how these climate-induced economic and non-economic losses and damages will be tackled. This can be achieved through true solidarity and by making the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage (SNLD) — a platform established at COP25 in Madrid, a more robust and effective mechanism to foster overdue technical assistance based on vulnerable nations’ experiences, while fostering more solutions-driven dialogues among parties and key stakeholders.
This leads us to the elephant in the room: solidarity. None of these desired outcomes will happen at the necessary scale and speed without cooperation and solidarity among countries. Developing countries wanted to see a delivery plan on how developed countries would meet their $100 billion per year pledge beginning 2020, but developed countries failed to deliver. This was critical for trust building, especially since we know that this target, agreed upon 12 years ago in Copenhagen, is the minimum requirement: trillions, rather than billions, are needed to facilitate the just transition to a decarbonized and climate-resilient world. The negotiations on the new finance goal – due to be adopted by 2025, will be an important item on the agenda. Vulnerable countries not only want an overall greater scale of investment, but also wish to make it easier for them to access this support with more grants (less loans) and, as mentioned, greater share for adaptation, which accounts for only 25% of climate finance.
Crucially, the credibility of any announcement on increased ambition will depend on how countries will be held accountable for their actions. In order to track and assess whether countries are on course to fulfil their commitments in an equitable manner, some long overdue rules and processes must be agreed upon. This includes guidance for the enhanced transparency framework and the global stocktake, securing five-year common end dates for country commitments, and the finalization of the carbon market. These rules must not only be flexible and inclusive, but also robust and able to ensure environmental integrity. Vulnerable countries also acknowledge that bad rules undermine the spirit of the Paris Agreement and must not be adopted for the sake of closing the rulebook.
We cannot ignore the progress we have made since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, proving that this landmark accord has worked to drive countries to act against the climate crisis. But science shows that the progress made so far is not nearly equitable, nor fast enough to protect vulnerable developing countries from the worst climate impacts that are yet to come, even in a 1.5°C world. G20 countries have agreed to an acceleration path on ambition, adaptation, and finance, but left the "how” for negotiators at COP26 to figure it out. The decisions and actions made in Glasgow this November can either renew trust and solidarity and bring us closer to the ultimate objective of the Paris Agreement, or condemn vulnerable developing countries to the costliest, most dangerous future. Will world leaders and their negotiators be remembered as good ancestors?